Costa Rica, February 2016
Jeri and I had planned a longer version of this trip a number of years ago, but had to cancel for a variety of reasons. So when some cheap First/Business class fares to San Jose, Costa Rica popped up on American we thought it would be a good time to revive the trip. Neither of us had been to Costa Rica before, so it was to be a blank slate. This is both exciting and unsettling at the same time.
The first day had us leaving out of LAX to Miami, then on to San Jose, Costa Rica, arriving after dark, around 8 PM. Nice flight and OK food, although we are probably becoming way too familiar with the Miami airport.
This was going to be a driving trip so I reserved a decent Suzuki 4WD from National. Choosing who to rent a vehicle from was a bit of a challenge as there were a great many car rental horror stories swirling around San Jose rentals in general. It was hard to pick a firm I’d be comfortable with. National, who I’d never rented from before, seemed to have the least number of gripes, so I went with them. On top of the basic rental is added some mandatory insurances, and since we were heading into rural Costa Rica, I added pretty much every other coverage I could, something I usually never do. It essentially doubled the base rental price but I could pretty much just walk away from the vehicle if I totaled it. Expensive peace of mind, but worth it in this case. And throughout the trip the Suzuki and its air conditioning worked flawlessly.
So knowing we’d be renting a vehicle at the airport, I booked our first night at a Hampton Inn right next to the airport. Good planning, right? Note to self: Your planning sucks. It turned out that National’s rental facility, like the other rental firms, is some distance from the airport, almost 4 miles. The airport car rental firms are in fact scattered all over the area with no centralized facility. So this meant taking a National van from the airport to National’s facility and then a 4 mile drive in the dark through a semi-urban area back to our hotel. Lovely.
Since it was nudging 9 PM traffic was mercifully light for the drive back to the airport. However along the way, Google Maps tried to bite us in the ass by routing us down a railroad track. Cool! In Google’s defense, there were parked vehicles along the dirt shoulders of the railroad bed, so in aerial photos it did look somewhat like a road, but ummm….it wasn’t. Fortunately I am always wary of GPS guidance so I had memorized a back up route if needed and used human skills to triumph over the Google overlords.
The Hampton Inn was quite nice with excellent air conditioning. Observant readers may note a certain fixation on air conditioning in this narrative. My genetic background is that of generic northern European, a land of cool, cloudy skies. I am not a tropics person, something driven home forcefully to me on our Panama visit a few months earlier. But these are interesting places for me to visit, if not live, as long as there is appropriate air conditioning life support.
The morning of our trip’s second day had us wake to a pretty nice day in San Jose. We enjoyed the first of our many breakfasts of Gallo Pinto (literally “spotted rooster”) a wunnerful mixture of beans, rice and mysterious spices. Seemed like every place we ate it had a slightly different version, but it was all good. Unexpectedly, the version we had at the Hampton Inn was our favorite.
After dawdling as long as we could at the Hampton Inn, we braved the crazy interchange on to the toll road and headed off to La Fortuna. For directional guidance I had now switched over to a Garmin Nuvi loaded with a special Costa Rican map set created by a Costa Rica supplier. This turned out to be an excellent combo although it insisted on loudly warning us of every narrow bridge and school we approached until we silenced that feature.
The drive to La Fortuna was extremely beautiful, but somewhat slow for someone who drives as crazy as me. The slow trucks were fairly easy to pass, but the road itself was rather winding. The GPS was predicting a rather long travel time of 2:30 for the “mere” 73 miles to La Fortuna, and in the end it was fairly close.
Since it was prior to check in when we arrived at La Fortuna, we decided to have lunch, since well….it’s all about eating. So we stopped at a place called Cafe Mediterraneo for, um…a pizza. Why an Italian dish while in Costa Rica? Good question, and I don’t have a good answer. For some reason Italian food seems to be wildly prevalent in Costa Rica, and much of it damn good. I have no idea why, unless it has to do with the influence of early Italian explorers. But given the choice of pondering questions such as these or eating, I choose to eat. And TripAdvisor had this place rated #3 out of the 118 La Fortuna area restaurants. So there. And the pizza WAS excellent.
After lunch we headed up the hill to our home for the next three nights, the Tifakara Lodge. It’s located a goodly height up the side of the easterly flank of the Volcán Arenal and within walking distance of the Reserva Ecológica Catarata Río Fortuna (Rio Fortuna waterfall). The lodgings consist of individual casitas with balconies looking out into the forest. Each unit is modern and pretty large with….wait for it….excellent air conditioning. Breakfast was included in the reasonable rate (yay, more Gallo Pinto!). While the service could be inconsistent at times, it was a beautiful, quiet location. Given its distance from beautiful downtown La Fortuna it seemed difficult to stay there if you didn’t have a car, although many taxis were available in La Fortuna.
Late that afternoon we spent some time exploring La Fortuna proper. It struck us as a bit of a small, but touristy place, not as bad as many we’ve seen. We walked around town indulging in our usual supermarket visits to gawk at foreign (to us) foods. We were surprised to see a number of what I would call at the risk of sounding like an old fart, “rasta-hippyish” tourists. These were young people of rather distinctive hair style and dress doing very low cost travel. La Fortuna appeared to have a number of hostels so perhaps that was one reason. Another reason might be the whole air of ecological balance Costa Rica exudes, perhaps an attraction to those with environmental philosophies. Yeah, I sound like an old fart.
On our first morning in La Fortuna we hit the road early and headed for a drive around the Volcán Arenal. Our ultimate destination was the Arenal Observatory Lodge, an unusual, high-end lodge on the southwest upper slopes of the Arenal Volcano.
Along the way we stopped for a bit of hiking at Arenal Volcano National Park. There were a few nice trails cut through the rain forest, one going up to the limits of a lava flow from 1968. The rain came and went, so we hiked with umbrellas and it was a worthwhile stop.
The Arenal Observatory Lodge is located at the end of a fairly long, nasty and annoying dirt road, thus requiring something of a commitment to get to. On our original, cancelled trip to Costa Rica, I had booked us there. For our current trip I was unable to find space, so we were at Tifakara Lodge. But we were curious about it. Annoyingly, if you weren’t a lodge guest they charged an admission fee to access their property, even if you were coming to use the restaurant. I almost balked at that point, but thinking about the nasty road back and being a bit hungry for lunch, I paid the fee and drove in.
All I can say is “Wow….worth it!”. The road immediately became good entering their property and the grounds were wonderfully landscaped. The facilities were very impressive with massive decks and views of the volcano and distant Lake Arenal. The restaurant turned out to be excellent, if a bit pricey, and we enjoyed lunch with a spectacular view.
This place seems to be a birder’s paradise. In front of the main viewing deck were placed pieces of fruit on old tree limbs attracting a multitude of different birds. This amused us for a while, then we wandered off to explore some of their paved trails, since we paid for the privilege. Really amazing grounds, with nothing else around.
I would imagine staying at the Arenal Observatory Lodge would be quite a plush experience but there are a few downsides. First, the rooms are fairly expensive. All these services in a remote area cost money. And second, you would be sort of “trapped” there. That annoying road in would really deter you from making the rather long drive to La Fortuna. Also, your meals will all have to be from their single, not cheap, restaurant. Still, I could see spending two nights here, which would allow for a full day to hike their many trails and maybe do some of their guided naturalist walks. This is something we might try to do if some future Costa Rica trip happens.
Heading back to our place near La Fortuna we again stopped for pizza, because…why not? That evening we had set up reservations for a guided nighttime “frog watching” tour at a wildlife refuge near where we were staying. This was a nighttime walk through the rainforest with flashlights and a guide, looking for weird and interesting animals. Jeri and I do a lot of things on our own, but walking on our own through the jungle at night isn’t one of them! The wisdom of this was underscored when one of the first things our guide found was a very venomous pit viper by the side of the trail.
Leaving Mr. Viper behind, it was a fascinating walk. We saw lots of frogs and some very strange spiders and insects. Even some bioluminescent fungi. Unfortunately no larger animals, but that sort of thing is the luck of the draw.
On our second day in La Fortuna we headed off to do a tour of a chocolate plantation which ended up being the high point of our entire Costa Rican trip. Now there are two “chocolate tours” in the La Fortuna area, the Rainforest Chocolate tour and Don Olivio’s Chocolate tour. The Rainforest tour was literally just down the street from where we were staying with really high TripAdvisor reviews, yet we chose Don Olivio’s. Why?
The Rainforest tour is really set up for tour groups as it’s more a demonstration plantation than an actual production facility. And seeing large tour busses parked there as we came and went from our lodge gave us pause. The TripAdvisor comments for Don Olivio’s described it as a family-run production facility, which was more to our liking. But many of the comments mentioned it could be hard to find, which we eventually found to be an understatement. Sorta.
Don Olivio’s is a couple miles east of La Fortuna off highway 142 near a small community called “El Tanque”. Despite Don Olivio’s actually showing up correctly on Google Maps, it took us three attempts to find it. Turned out one of their signs was down and we kept going past a critical turn. But stubbornness prevailed and we eventually wound up at the right place. Also at the time their website was “404’ed”, which made me think they might have closed, but it’s now back up.
The tour was intimate, with just Jeri and I and four other Americans who were touring Costa Rica. The tour was conducted by Minor (sp?) Don Olivio’s grandson, who was assisted by his father Otto (sp?). This ten acre family farm has been producing cacao, banana, avocados, sugar cane and a variety of other exotic fruit for 60 years.
Minor lead us on a long walk though the facility on decent trails, stopping many times to point out unusual plants and allowing us to sample. Minor really knew his botany, and Jeri, as a Master Gardener, really enjoyed the technical aspects he presented. For me, it seemed like there was a disproportionate percent of plants identified as being “good for hangovers”, which is apparently important in Costa Rica. We got to operate a hand cranked crushing machine that extracted sugar syrup from raw sugar cane, then sample our result.
And of course chocolate. We went through the entire process, sampling the cocoa beans at each step, raw through roasted. And at the end, they brewed us some first rate hot chocolate! Seeing the work involved, I’d be willing to paid a LOT more for chocolate.
Surprisingly, at the end of the tour there wasn’t a chance to buy finished chocolate bars like some other tours offer. Don Olivio’s doesn’t produce chocolate bars. What you can buy is amazing ground chocolate, some of which is ground from the beans in front of you. They also sell a sort of chocolate “unbar”. They mix their ground chocolate with the sweet liquid extracted from their sugar cane then let it dry out a bit. It sets up to thick sheet which is then cut into cubes. It was an amazing taste, somewhat like a chocolate truffle. Because their production is limited we (thankfully) couldn’t buy all we wanted, but we brought what we could. We just loved the tour and found it to be a fantastic bargain. I’m sure the Rainforest tour is very good and wouldn’t disappoint most, but the intimacy of the Don Olivio tour was exquisite.
After the tour we headed back to our lodge and decided to make the short walk up the road to the Reserva Ecológica Catarata Río Fortuna. I guess I was expecting a modest facility with a rundown trail to the waterfall, so I was really surprised by what we found. There was a first rate visitor center with gift shop and restaurant. The trail to the waterfall was almost fully paved, and where it wasn’t there were honeycomb pavers to stabilize the trail. It was over 500 steps down to the base of the falls, with many benches placed for the return climb. Because this is Costa Rica and not the US, visitors at the bottom were free to swim in the stream, although they wanted you to keep away from under the fall itself since it would beat the crap out of you.
That evening, for our last night in La Fortuna, we went into town for….more pizza. Actually this pizza place wasn’t so great, but we did enjoy the large Morpho butterfly flittering through the dining area as well as the many geckos on the ceiling. Dinner and a show.
The next morning we got an annoyingly early start to head back to San Jose. I had selected a roundabout route that would take us to the Doka Coffee Estate north of Alajuela for a coffee tour and lunch, but we had to be there by 11 AM. My GPS was saying 2:45 for the 73 mile trip, and while I was skeptical, it was very close. One cannot travel fast in Costa Rica. Our route took us around the Poas volcano and park, climbing surprisingly high, before descending toward San Jose.
The Doka Estate tour, while somewhat interesting, didn’t overly impress us. Of course we couldn’t help comparing it to the Don Olivio’s tour the previous day, which was a little unfair. Doka is actually a big coffee producer and does a lot of tours, especially large groups. However for our 11 AM tour, it was just Jeri and I and the guide. Maybe because he was just one of their many employees his enthusiasm was less, but it felt like our guide was just going through the motions. Still, it was very interesting to go though their water powered milling facility, even though it was Sunday and wasn’t running. The grounds themselves were very nice and we could wander around quite a bit after lunch. They had a nice butterfly garden, keeping with the tourist aura of the place, and we enjoyed it. In all, the stop was well worth it and we were able to kill enough time there to head straight for our place in San Jose for check in.
When I was initially setting up this trip, and had locked in our air travel, I discovered I made a big mistake. I forgot about there being a February 29th this year. This resulted in our having two nights in San Jose before heading home, instead of the one night I wanted. Actually, “in San Jose” isn’t exactly accurate. I had booked us in a really nice Hilton Garden Inn in the La Sabana area of San Jose, which was much closer to the airport than downtown San Jose. I guess I had it in my mind that since we had a car we could just drive into town from there. This sort of thing always makes sense when I’m comfortably at home making plans. As it turned out, between having had an assfull of driving in Costa Rica, and the intricacies of our high rise hotel’s underground parking, I was pretty disinclined to drive into the older, congested part of town, or any more driving for that matter.
So we ended up doing a lot of walking, especially in the huge Parque Metropolitano La Sabana just across the street from our hotel. In addition to a lake and trails, there was the extremely impressive National Stadium right across from us. I’m not sure I’d want to be around here on a game day, but perhaps it could be fun. There were a few museums in the park, but it being Monday they were closed. But we found some nice restaurants to eat at (fish, not pizza!) and were able to kill the extra day in a relaxed manner. Strangely, the weather was really windy and almost cool. We actually wore jackets when walking in the evening.
Unfortunately, our flight home the next morning was at 8:00 AM, and between getting to the airport and having to drop off the vehicle prior and what route to take, we planned our wake up for around 4:45 AM. And since I’m prone to overthink the logistics of such things, I managed to wake myself up a bit after 3 AM and quietly considered our day ahead until it was “safe” to wake Jeri at 4:45. As a result, I was fairly trashed the rest of our return day. Happily, we were able to snag a large 767-300 aircraft for the long hop from Miami to LAX, and the Business seats in that aircraft go almost fully flat. So I spent much of that trip in a semi-horizontal, semi-conscious state. For me it was a quick trip.
So Jeri and I really enjoyed our trip to Costa Rica and have talked about possibly a return visit at some future date. I guess that’s the sign of a good trip.
Things that struck us about Costa Rica:
- It’s a very clean country that appears to take preservation of natural resources seriously.
- All the people we met were very pleasant and polite, a little surprising since their country is overrun by sometimes annoying tourists.
- Driving in Costa Rica isn’t bad but i always takes a lot longer than you’d think to get anywhere. And lots of trucks.
- The US dollar seems to be widely accepted, even in remote areas. In many cases it was easier to use dollars than Costa Rica Colones.
- The food was excellent, especially the Gallo Pinto and the wide variety of seafood.
- Part of Costa Rica’s elevations make it cooler and more comfortable than places like Panama (yay!), but we never reached the coast, which is likely much hotter.
- English seems to be widely spoken and we seldom had to use our bad Spanish.
- The coffee most everywhere was just plain excellent. The same can’t be said of the pizza.